Tuesday, September 26, 2006

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

I have the life I’ve always wanted, though I didn’t always know that THIS was precisely what I ultimately wanted. My twenties were spent chasing a fun social life, a seemingly elusive degree (in what, I didn’t know for the longest time), building a career and getting to know myself. Typical pursuits for most twenty-somethings, especially in a college town.

Even once I got married and finished college, I still wandered about aimlessly for a while. I tried the corporate life for about six months before I nearly self-destructed in the stifling atmosphere that Office Work entailed. ‘Twas a good job, a safe job. The pay was nice, the benefits were great, job security was ensured, but I’m not a good worker bee. Working 9-to-5, wearing a suit, having a nice office (with a great view overlooking College Square) – these weren’t the things that fulfilled me. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t respect those who are suited for this sort of life. I just know myself better than to think this was the end-all for me. This is what I had worked so hard for in college, and it was what I had thought that I wanted. I was wrong.

So I moved on. Still happily married, blissfully ensconced in a cute house in a hip neighborhood, I embarked on a better challenge. I took advantage of an endless supply of vacation days from The Firm, and I hopped a plane to go to Montana, where I’d never been, to meet a guy with a job offer that promised no security whatsoever. A week later, I turned in my notice at The Firm, shocking most people who knew me, and started work running the financial side of an international wholesale vintage clothing company. I set up an office in my little rental house, put my suits and pantyhose in permanent storage (where they remain to this day) and began a Whole New Life. Two weeks later I went to Miami for a week, returned home for a few days, headed back to the airport for a week in California, and then came home long enough to push some paper around in my office and repack my suitcase for a long weekend in Vegas.

The constant travel didn’t last, but for the next six months or so, I spent a week each month in South Beach, where the company had an apartment and where I got the necessary face time with a boss who didn’t live or work anywhere near my home. My mornings in Miami would be spent meeting with The Boss, and my days would revolve around the beach and my exploration of the city that slowly became my second home. I made friends there, began leaving clothes at the apartment so that I would be able to pack as lightly as possible on the next trips, essentially starting a second, parallel, life. It wasn’t long before The Carnivore and I recognized the strain this was putting on our relationship. Only a year into our marriage, I was becoming even more independent than I was before we made a commitment to each other. Then September 11 happened, which made future travel more hassle than adventure, and in which, most importantly, I was away from home and stranded during the nationwide halt on air travel. I had already been on the road for four or five days when the tragedy happened, and was supposed to fly home on September 12, which, for obvious reasons, didn’t happen. Suddenly, Miami didn’t feel like home anymore. I felt isolated and lost, needing my husband and family desperately.

For the next few days, I ran up my cell phone bill to alarming levels, spending hours on the phone with The Carnivore and my mother, both worried sick about how to get me home where I belonged. Flights were grounded, rental cars were more than impossible to find, and I could have walked home faster than a bus could have gotten me there. For the first time, I realized how much I NEEDED my husband. Co-dependency has never been my strong suit. Sure, I married the man because I loved him intensely, because we were such a great team, and because I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. But now, finally, I was able to accept that depending on a man for comfort, really NEEDING him, wasn’t a sign of weakness. It was a sign of strength. I finally made it home, four days later, and we clung to each other. It was time to make another change. I had found a job I loved, involving travel, which I especially loved, and this what I thought I had wanted. Again, I was wrong.

My long-term career goal had always been to eventually have my own business, to not have a boss at all, to work at home, with a client roster that I handpicked. So I speeded up my plans, and took the biggest risk yet. Over the next few months, I slowed down and then eventually stopped my travel schedule altogether, and went part-time with the vintage company, as a subcontractor. I incorporated myself, put the word out around town, and began slowly building my own accounting business. We started looking for a house to buy and restore, and within a year we decided, over a table at a Mexican restaurant (which, if you know my family, just figures), that we were ready to start a family. A house was found, a construction loan was obtained, I became pregnant and decided not to expand my business any further than it was at that point, and The Carnivore quit his safe job to work on the house and to begin his own business as well. Mrs. S-corp and Mr. LLC had found their niche.

Fast forward a few years, and now I find myself at a crossroads again. My life is exactly where I thought I wanted it. We have our dream house, an incredibly fascinating toddler, and two successful businesses. The Carnivore works more than full-time, and is expanding his business faster than we had thought possible; and I have a small handful of clients that I juggle so as to only work an hour or two a day. Instead of focusing on expanding my business, I have spent the past two years maintaining my client-load in order to keep my business small. This has been the hardest struggle of all, because I swear it is far easier to expand a business than to try and STOP it from expanding. And after all, THIS is what we had striven for.

But then I faced the newest and, surprisingly, the greatest challenge. I was contacted yesterday by a very successful Indie-rock PR firm who had (big ego-boost coming here…) heard multiple recommendations for my services and was very interested in giving me work. Maybe I’ve never said this out loud here, but I LOVE the music industry. I married a musician, most of my friends are musicians, and some of the most fun work I have done has been that which involved the music business. So here I am, at a brand new place in my life, and the greatest possible client has come to me, dropped into my lap unsolicited and on the basis of recommendations from others within the music business and within my own industry. I am flattered beyond belief, exhilarated by the opportunity, and utterly fascinated by the fun work that would be involved.

And I’m turning it down.

For the umpteenth time in my life, I have found myself in a position I had only dreamed of, and I’m walking away from it because of a shift in my priorities.

In the beginning of all this career-building, and through all the different changes in course, the core of The Dream remained the same: to have an office in my home, to have my choice of incredibly cool clients and businesses to choose from, to work hours that I picked, to be challenged by new angles from new industries, and to not be held back by or tied down to any of this because of financial needs. Because now, (dare I say it), it’s no longer about the money. The Carnivore’s business can support our family by itself. I no longer have to make business decisions or take on new clients in order to make more money. The work I still do is work that I choose to do because I’m just not capable of sitting still. I can’t even entertain the thought of not working at all, because I would get bored. Raising a toddler may be challenging, and it may be time-intensive, but it simply isn’t a full-time job. Odd Toddler plays for hours on end now, and I have free time, albeit in small and oft-interrupted chunks, in which to pursue additional challenges. Hey, I’m Big Mama’s daughter. What would you expect? For me to fill my free time reading gossip magazines and watching soap operas?

Regardless of my high standards for myself, The Carnivore and I have decided that rather than continuing to maintain my business at the level its at, I will now start dismantling my client-load, little by little. I worked hard to build this company, and then I worked hard to stop it from growing any further, and now I’m taking it apart. Because we want more children. And due to the growth of The Carnivore’s business, my workload needs to shift from doing other clients’ work to running the financial and human resources side of The Carnivore’s business. It would be bad ethics and extremely bad form for me to accept this fascinating new client, which I would have killed for just a few years ago, and to then (if the Good Lord willing and the river don’t rise) get pregnant next month and have to look at extricating myself from the new client nine short months later.

I’ve always known myself well, and I know The New Me even better. My priorities now center around expanding my family, not my business. So I will learn to trust and lean on my husband even more. For the first time since I was a child, I will be completely financially dependent on someone else, and will have to learn to not be so caught up in making sure that I'm carrying my own weight. If I have free time while Odd Toddler plays, instead of doing work for a client, I would rather spend that time running an errand for my husband’s business, or helping my siblings do their homework, or babysitting so mom can go to the grocery store without dragging 10 kids with her. I want to be the best wife I can be, the best mother I can be, and the best daughter and big sister that I can be. A few years ago, I added these goals to the original one of being the best accountant that I can be. Now I’m demoting the accountant position to the very bottom. I doubt I’ll ever slow down enough to quit working altogether, but I’m getting better at demanding less of myself.

And, after all, what free time REALLY means around here is that I try out more new recipes. And continue to refine our menu selections. It all comes down to having more time to obsess over my obsessions.

The biggest goal lately seems to have revolved around me not trying so dang hard to do everything so dang perfectly. In a perfect world, The Carnivore would come home at the end of the day to a spotless house, a clean and quiet child, a four-course gourmet dinner and a completely serene and happy wife. But life is not perfect. And The Carnivore has been repeating the same refrain over and over for the last few months which, in a nutshell, is "Stop trying to do everything, Sarah." The true reality is that The Carnivore's favorite thing to come home to is a slightly disheveled house, a dirty and rambunctious toddler, a tasty but not overly complicated dinner, and a wife with a smudge of sand on her nose and a smile on her face. And, as I've tried to shy away from dinners that take two solid hours of prep and cooking, I've found that we are all happier.

My standards are still pretty darn high, of course. Dinner must be yummy, creative and interesting, but must not, under any circumstances, stress me out. Time I spend stressing is time I don't get to spend enjoying my husband and child. So yesterday, instead of rushing Odd Toddler into the house so that I could cook, and instead of cooking the Creamy Cajun Shrimp Fettucine recipe that I wanted so badly to try, I shifted gears and sat on the edge of the sandbox to play with Odd Toddler a little longer. "Upside-down day," I shouted into the house at The Carnivore, which is code around here for breakfast food for dinner. And, to my utter delight, "Cool!" was his ecstatic response. I love that man. Then again, he knows that breakfast-for-dinner has absolutely nothing to do with eating cold cereal...

FANCY FRENCH TOAST (adapted from Joy of Cooking, serves two and a half)
  • 1/3 cup soy milk (regular milk will also do fine, as will half-and-half)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 Tbs pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 5 slices artisan breakfast bread (I use the cranberry-walnut bread from the Publix bakery - hearty and intriguing without being sweet)
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter
  • More pure maple syrup, for serving
  1. In a shallow bowl, whisk the soy milk, eggs, syrup, vanilla and salt.
  2. One at a time, add the bread, turning the slices in the egg mixture until thoroughly saturated but not falling apart.
  3. In a skillet, melt the butter over low heat.
  4. Add bread, one or two slices at a time, to the skillet and cook until golden brown on the underside. Flip bread over and cook until second side is golden.
  5. Keep slices warm in a 200 degree oven while the rest is cooked.
  6. Serve warm, drizzled with maple syrup.

CREAMY DREAMY WHITE CHEDDAR GRITS (adapted from The Flying Biscuit Cafe, originally blogged about here, complete with goofy picture of grit-covered Odd Toddler, serves three)

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup soy milk, regular milk, or half-and-half
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1 cup grits (stone-ground grits are lovely here)
  • 1/2 cup grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter
  1. In a saucepan, combine water, half-and-half, salt and white pepper and bring to a boil.
  2. Slowly pour grits into boiling water while whisking the entire time.
  3. Reduce to low heat and continue to whisk often, until thick and completely smooth, about 10 minutes (slightly less time for quick grits, slightly more time for stone-ground grits).
  4. Add cheese and stir gently until cheese melts. Whisk again to combine.
  5. Turn heat off and allow grits to rest 5 minutes.
  6. Add butter and stir until completely smooth, silky and shiny.

Even the easy, unambitious dinners can be perfect. Served together, french toast and cheese grits can seem downright decadent.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Chickens Riding Shotgun

The Carnivore called me yesterday afternoon and said (honest to goodness), "I have a chicken riding shotgun." My brother works for The Carnivore now, and I automatically flinched, thinking, oh no, what has Little Brother done? But The Carnivore was not referring to him. He was instead referring to the actual chicken riding around with him in his truck. Apparently, there were chickens at a job site, and The Carnivore left his door open. After leaving the site and stopping at a few other places, a chicken walked out from under the passenger seat and climbed up to sit next to the gear shift. Unlike some men, my husband didn't just open the door and boot the chicken out onto the street. On the contrary, The Carnivore drove back clear across town, in the opposite direction of where he needed to be going, so that he could return the chicken to its family. He pulled into the driveway, opened the door, and the chicken just jumped right out and went back to its yard. Hours later, when The Carnivore got home and gathered his paperwork and coffee cup to bring inside, he found a little surprise in his floorboard. "Look what I found," he laughed, and handed me an egg.

If only groceries could materialize in his truck every day. Especially eggs.

I have still been on my quest for The Perfect Sunday Meal lately, and have tried my hand at huge Sunday lunches that require me to cook for two hours straight after church, but that allow me to then relax all afternoon and not have to cook supper. I've also dabbled with making a few double dishes for Saturday supper so that there are leftovers for Sunday, which means I only need to come up with a creative, quick and light lunch for after church. So far, this option is winning out for its ease and yum factor, for when else do I have a chance to try out some simple and small snack-like meals?

I lucked into an Everyday Italian episode on sandwiches a couple of Saturdays ago, and was tickled to find a recipe for an Italian Egg Sandwich. I'm a BIG FAN of fried egg sandwiches, but have grown mildly bored with the typical fried-egg-and-hot-sauce on whole wheat kind of thing. I was nearly gleeful over Giada's interpretation, involving marinara sauce and salty fresh Parmesan cheese. I'm beginning to think all my recipes need an Italian riff. The Carnivore and I loved this recipe, and his mother seemed to like it as well. I'll be putting this on heavy rotation.

The recipe used for the tomato sauce in this recipe is pretty stinking good as well, and can be frozen and used as the base for a more complicated spaghetti sauce with added herbs, chopped vegetables and/or meat (if you swing that way). In a time crunch though, any store-bought spaghetti sauce, Ragu or whatnot, can be used with decent enough results and will shorten the prep time considerably.


ITALIAN EGG SANDWICH (adapted from Everyday Italian), makes one serving, which won't be nearly enough

  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 large egg (freshly laid in the floorboard of your truck, or purchased at the store, whatever floats your particular boat)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 slice rustic white bread, 1/2-inch thick (ciabatta works well)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 Tbs grated Parmesan (freshly grated - not the stuff you buy in a canister)
  • 1/4 cup warm tomato sauce, drained of excess liquid
  1. Heat oil in heavy small skillet over medium heat.
  2. Crack egg into skillet; sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes per side, until white is firm and yolk is almost set.
  4. Season again with a little more salt.
  5. Toast the bread until golden brown, and rub the garlic over the toast.
  6. Sprinkle Parmesan over toast. Spoon the drained marinara sauce over the Parmesan, and top with the egg. Serve open-faced.